Georgia Tech has proven to be a significant hurdle for North Carolina in baseball during the past five years.
The Yellow Jackets are 11-6 against UNC during this period, a record that includes a 2-0 mark during postseason play. The last two seasons, the home team has won two out of three games between these two rivals. Yet Georgia Tech has won four of the last five series and leads overall the all-time series 57-47.
Starting tonight at 7 at Cary Boshamer Stadium, Carolina (39-10, 16-8 in the Coastal Division of the ACC) will once again be the home team. A young Georgia Tech (30-18, 14-9) squad will throw its ace, sophomore left-hander Dave Duncan, who is 6-2 with an earned run average of 2.77. He will face Carolina's best in right-hander Robert Woodard, who is 7-2 with a 2.82 ERA.
"They're a little young this year," UNC alumnus and head coach Mike Fox said of the Yellow Jackets. "They started off slowly, and I think their pitching wasn't where they wanted it to be. But they've been playing better as of late. Their three starters have all pitched well for them. We're going to face two lefties. They're right in the mix. They're playing a lot better of late, so we'll have our hands full."
On Saturday at 1 p.m., UNC right-hander Alex White (4-3, 3.29 ERA) will face right-hander Eddie Burns (3-2, 3.09). In the series finale on Sunday at 1:30 p.m., Carolina right-hander Luke Putkonen (6-1, 4.10) of Marietta, Ga., will pitch against Georgia Tech left-hander Ryan Tuner (5-3, 4.24).
This is the final ACC home series of the season for the Tar Heels, who trail third-ranked Virginia by a half game in the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers and the Tar Heels lead the conference in team ERA, with each averaging less than three.
"All these weekend series in our league are important," Fox said. "When you look back on it, all 30 games are going to count the same. This weekend, it's just the fact that Georgia Tech is in our division and they're two games behind us in the win column and one in the loss column and they're fighting to climb up and put themselves in good position to be a good seed. It's a big series, there is no question."
Fox said that he fully expects his team to be ready for it. Carolina played for the national championship last season, and the run the Tar Heels instilled an understanding of what it takes to win at the highest level, Fox said.
"I like the way we're playing," Fox said. "I like our team. They play hard. They know what is at stake. I don't have to tell them a whole lot. That is what last year did for us. Our kids know I just go out before the game and read the lineup. The rest is up to them. I've got some great leaders and some smart kids in that locker room."
The Tar Heels have won seven of their last eight games, including the two they played this week after exams ended during the previous weekend. UNC's midweek pitching returned strong from the semester-ending tests. Carolina defeated Elon 9-0 on Tuesday and East Carolina 5-1 Wednesday, getting strong pitching in each game.
"We are extremely thrilled with that," Fox said. "With such a long layoff, a lot of these kids haven't faced a live hitter in eight or nine days. They all came out and were aggressive and threw strikes.
"They looked like they hadn't skipped a beat for the most part. We pitched and played really good defense, so we hope that will continue. We're pleased with how we played. We just have to continue it."
Offensively, Carolina has a variety of players who can produce. Right now, Reid Fronk is the hottest one. He has four home runs in his last four games. He carried the Tar Heels offensively in their previous ACC series, when UNC took two of three at N.C. State.
"He's in a hot streak and a little bit of a power streak as well," Fox said. "He's hit some home runs. He did that a little bit last year. He got hot and hit some home runs. We don't want him to follow that too much because he's not really a home-run hitter. But he's capable of doing it, so it's nice to see him hit a big one [against East Carolina]."
Tim Federowicz has produced at the plate, behind the plate and on the mound. The sophomore catcher has become a part-time relief pitcher this season, and he's done well. On Wednesday, he struck out a career-high six batters in 2 and one-third innings of relief against East Carolina.
"We knew Tim was a pitcher," Fox said. "He pitched last year in practice and some scrimmages but we didn't have as much of a need for him last year. Being a freshman, it was more important for him to just catch for us. We knew coming into this year, we might need some guys coming out of the bullpen. We felt like he could handle both roles. He actually likes to come from behind the plate and pitch. He's got a great arm. He showed it [against East Carolina].
"Tim's just a baseball player," Fox said. "He's cool under pressure. You can get on him. He doesn't say anything. He just smiles. He's got the complete package. He's a terrific player."
Carolina has played a demanding schedule, and has excelled against it. Staring with a series at Florida State on April 20-22, the Tar Heels have played eight of their last 10 games against nationally ranked opponents. Georgia Tech is ranked No. 24. Carolina went 5-3 against ranked teams in its recent stretch and is 11-5 versus ranked teams this season.
Tonight, Woodard will be trying to make history. He is tied with Michael Hoog, who is now a lawyer, with the most career victories with a 30-5 record in four seasons. A victory would make Woodard the 16th pitcher in ACC history to have 31 or more wins during his career.